I've gotten into a number of debates on Facebook recently, usually revolving around either healthcare reform, Obama's economic recovery policies, or some combination of the two. (BTW, Facebook debates are exceedingly annoying since they tend to take place in the comments of someone's status update, are limited in the number of characters you can type, and have no text editing capabilities... but I digress.) Anyhow, I don't intend to rehash the finer points of either of these issues here, but I did want to comment on an insight I had in the course of these debates - I think I finally figured out what being a "progressive" means to me.
(As a caveat - I should clarify that in this post I will be giving my own personal definition of "progressive, along with my personal definitions of "conservative" and "liberal". These may or may not line up with 1) historic, technical, or "official" definitions of any of these terms, or 2) your own personal definitions of them. I really don't care. I'm not talking about your definitions or the official definitions, so please don't overwhelm my blog with comments like: "That's not real conservativism" or "That's not how I define progressive" or whatever. This post is only about how I tend to understand the terms.)
I've been calling myself a "progressive" (politically speaking) for a while, but up till now I mainly meant it as a sort of vague contrast with "liberal", since 1) I don't necessarily line up perfectly with what is usually thought of as "liberal", and since 2) these days it's more often used as an epithet or an insult than as a meaningful description. Progressive seemed like a better alternative, both because it has less baggage, and because it connotes something forward looking, action-oriented, and optimistic.
It's that forward looking spirit that I realized really gives progressive politics their defining character. It is a reformist approach, one that sees the brokeness in the way things are now, both in the public (e.g. government) and private (e.g. corporate) sector, but is optimistic and proactive about fixing them and working towards a better world. Progressives don't see either one of these, public or private, as the sole cause of our problems, nor as the whole of the solution, but are interested in reforming both and using both as tools towards the goal of a more harmonious and just society.
This, according to my definitions, is the difference between progressives and both conservatives and liberals. Conservatives, to greatly oversimplify (and to focus primarily on the economically "libertarian" type conservatives who seem to have taken over the movement in the past couple of decades), are those who generally see the government as the "problem" and favor laissez-faire, "free market" solutions. Liberals, on the other hand, generally see the government as the solution to most of the problems created by the "free market" and corporate rapaciousness. Progressives, by contrast, see both the government and corporations as part of the problem, but also see them both as part of the solution. Progressives don't just want to scrap one in favor of the other, we want to overhaul the whole system, in all of its parts, from top to bottom. We don't just want more government or less government, we want better government (and better industry).
So, for instance, a liberal looks at our health care industry and says "Private industry really made a mess of things, the government should fix it," and a conservative looks at the same mess and says "The government can't fix anything, it'll just make things worse. Let's just do nothing and trust private industry to fix itself." A progressive, however, says, "you're both right, the industry is a mess, and so is government, so let's fix both!" In other words, a progressive approach owns the mess, and the responsibility for cleaning it up, instead of trying to pass the buck onto whichever side they like least. A progressive tries to change the system instead of just complaining about the parts we don't like, since we realize that "the government" and "those capitalists" aren't some evil opponents out there somewhere. They are "us" (see, for instance, the first line of the Constituion, "We the people..."). We are all part of the system, and thus we all have a responsibility to try and change it for the better.
And it's an optimistic approach: it believes that we actually can change the system and make things better over the long term - that "progress" is possible - and thus encourages us to actually get involved both in the public/political sphere, as well as in our individual lives to produce change. It doesn't fall into the kind of fatalism I see all around me these days - the kind that says "nothing will ever really change, and you're too insignificant to make a difference, so don't even bother." Progressives were chanting Obama's slogan "Yes We Can!" before he ever came up with it, and we were quoting Gandhi's exhortation to "be the change you wish to see in the world", long before it became ubiquitous.
This optimism is not based on some blind faith or wishful thinking, nor even (for us progressive Christians) on some retrograde, post-millenial theology that says human effort is capable of ushering in the Kingdom of God all on its own. Instead it is based on the very simple and rather obvious fact that sweeping social change has happened many, many, many times before, and there's absolutely no reason we shouldn't expect it to happen again, and therefore no reason we shouldn't seek to play a part in shaping and directing that change. After all, just look how much has changed since the Revolutionary War, for instance, or since the original "Progressive Era" in America, or since the Civil Rights era, or since the Fall of the Soviet Union, etc... None of these changes happened magically. Real people fought and struggled and worked towards their visions of a better world, and they achieved some, if not all, of their dreams. There's no reason why we shouldn't do the same.
That's why I call myself a "progressive".
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